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Incentive to Snitch Produces False Information

The secondary confession – also known as snitching – is widely accepted as valid evidence in criminal prosecution. Yet, the first behavioral study to investigate whether people will provide false secondary confessions has raised concerns about the use of such evidence when informants are offered incentives, said psychology researchers Jessica K. Swanner and Denise R. Beike.

“The results of our study were interesting but discouraging,” Beike said. “With the use of incentives, we should have seen an increase in true secondary confessions. But an incentive actually did the opposite. It brought forward not the reluctant informant, but the opportunistic.”

In the psychology lab, 129 participants paired with confederates of the researchers engaged in a computer exercise that ended in a simulated computer crash and a purported loss of data. After the crash, confederates either denied or “admitted” that they had caused the crash.

Some participants were given an incentive to tell whether the confederate had admitted to causing the problem. They were told a faculty adviser would be informed and that the person who had caused the problem would be required to return for a second session.

Participants were asked to sign a statement affirming that the other person – the confederate – had admitted crashing the computer. Not surprisingly, participants were more likely to sign when the confederate had admitted to causing the crash. But with an incentive, the rate of signing increased only when the confederate had denied causing the crash. The incentive increased the rate of false rather than true secondary confessions.

“It is essential for jurors, prosecutors and judges to be informed about the potentially biasing nature of incentives to confess,” they concluded. “Snitches may indeed lie or come to believe a falsehood about another to be the truth. Jurors must be able to consider this possibility as they make their verdicts.”

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